Baseline tests will damage our children’s learning

Since our previous posts on this issue Schools urged to boycott Reception Baseline tests and Test questions for 4 year olds, we received these two commentaries from teachers in Yorkshire reflecting on their experiences of teaching and assessing young children. We have agreed to publish them anonymously to avoid the teachers or their schools being placed under undue pressure. (Yes, it is shocking that such fears exist in a democracy!) The first is from the head of an infant and nursery school, the second from a Reception class teacher.

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I find it shocking that children will be at risk of ‘failing’ in their first few weeks of full time school.

I have many worries about the new baseline assessments on entry to Reception. Children develop at different rates and prefer to learn in different styles, as the guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage recognises, along with the right to playful learning for all children. Sadly, I do not see this in five of the six baseline assessments that the current government have approved.

I worry about the accuracy and comparability of the different assessments.

In one, the government requirement of assessing the prime area of communication and language is not even part of the data that is gathered. Academic research has shown that without developmentally appropriate skills in these areas, progress in the specific aspects of literacy and mathematics can be slowed.

After meeting with all the providers at one of their workshop events, it is clear that the well-being of our young children has not been taken into account by five of the six. Where are the characteristics of effective learning in their assessments? These aspects of playing and exploring, active learning and creating and thinking critically are vital indicators of future potential for learning. I worry that this has been overlooked and the focus on English and Maths outcomes are too narrow a predictor for later attainment even in these core areas.

I worry about the status of school nurseries. Some of the children in my school are on the school roll for five terms in nursery before they start in our reception classes. Many start nursery with developmental levels below those expected for their age. Our highly skilled nursery staff work tirelessly to support children and their families to enable them to make progress towards a typical level of development by the time they begin reception. Where will this be recognised externally?

Providers of the different baseline assessments indicate that their tests will only take 30 minutes to provide accurate data of children’s abilities. If this is so, why have we spent several years building up detailed pictures of children’s abilities through the use of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile? Why has the government accepted this information from Reception teachers as an accurate reflection of children’s attainment at the end of the EYFS [i.e. the end of Reception] but not now at the beginning of the Reception year?

After speaking to colleagues who had the opportunity to trial some of the baseline assessments, I worry about the amount of time that will be taken up with administering these tests – and many took longer than the stated times. This time would be better spent building relationships with the children and actually teaching the children. I do not want the 4 and 5 year olds in my school sitting with an iPad or at a computer screen with limited interaction and communication with an adult or with unfamiliar resources to produce a set of data that will not inform my reception teachers of anything that the highly skilled nursery staff have not already told them.

There is only one I could commit to because it will allow us to continue relying on observations in the course of normal activities. Nothing else will provide us with usable information feeding into the next steps of learning. Even so, the implications of a single score resulting from this is deeply worrying, and likely to lead to labelling and self-fulfilling prophecies about what each child can achieve.

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One of my many concerns is that many children will not understand the questions – they may have the understanding which is being assessed but won’t have the language skills to interpret what they are being asked. That is because of the artificiality of the language in which questions are framed.

Years ago we used to do the PIPS tests in reception (a software based computer programme which asked similar questions, and which is the precursor to CEM’s baseline assessment). Children struggled to understand what they were expected to do. To be honest, despite the visuals on the screen for them to look at, they also found it hard to focus for longer than a couple of minutes.

The tests didn’t demonstrate anything in the long term and couldn’t be used as any kind of indicator of anything. For example, some children who were able to recognise the letters they were shown didn’t actually understand the concept of them making sounds; so some children scored well but subsequently struggled with their phonetic development. The same was true with the numeracy skills: many could recognise and name the shapes and numbers but didn’t understand what they signified.

When we used PIPS, it was expected to be completed within the first few days in class, even though the children are understandably unsettled and unsure of the whole experience of school. Many children would find it hard to speak to me in their first few weeks as they were getting used to simply being at school. Quite a few children wouldn’t participate in the test as they just didn’t feel secure with me one-to-one.

Their score was a reflection of how shy and insecure they felt – nothing else!

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